WordPress is amazing and keeps getting better, but I want to be clear about an inherent limitation that WordPress has as a content management system (CMS). That limitation is that WordPress doesn’t handle multiple content regions on web pages.
Too strong? With WordPress, you can try to use custom fields or innovative hacks like Bill Erickson’s approach to multiple content areas using H4 elements in his excellent theme “Thesis”. Unfortunately, neither of those approaches really deals with the depth of the design problem that often requires multiple content areas for pages.
As an information architect/user experience designer, I’ve been involved in many projects that required more types of content on any single screen than WordPress is designed to handle.
Let me draw out what I’m talking about here.
Exhibit A: Page content that WordPress is designed to handle
In a standard WordPress page or post, you’ll see these author-controlled pieces of content.
- Post/page Title
- Excerpt (often not-used)
There are other sets of data for a page or post that an author can control, too, but these are meta-data such as tags, categories, slug (shows up in the URL), and possibly search engine optimization information like title, description, and keywords.
For a normal blog, many online trade journals, and a lot of basic websites, this really covers the bases. The body contains the bulk of the content including images, video, and audio that can be intermingled with the text itself. This model is very flexible, and it has definitely proven itself.
Exhibit B: Page content that pushes WordPress too far
In 2009, there was a small project at work to develop the website Covenant Musicians, and because the person who would keep the site updated was already using WordPress, we made the decision to build this site with WordPress too.
Well, if you look at one of the destination pages for this site, the musician profile page (here’s one for example), you’ll notice some different pieces of content which may or may not be present on any particular musician profile page. When they are present, they need to be in certain places and sometimes with certain content.
The problem is, to control those extra pieces of content: the video, the band image, the link to the band’s website, the site owner needs to use WordPress’s custom fields in very precise ways, without the benefit of WordPress’s content editing tools. What a drag!
To make life easier for the site owner, we ended up recording screencast instructions on how to use these fields and delivered those help files with the site itself. (We used Jing by Techsmith, by the way.)
It would’ve been better had the interface been clear enough so that we didn’t feel the need to document the process of updating these destination pages, but that’s the trouble with stretching WordPress beyond its default content fields.
Ask too much of WordPress and ease-of-use is the casualty
Do you see the difference? When an effective design solution requires multiple types of content per page, using WordPress will actually make your website difficult to manage. WordPress is usually so easy to use that when you hit this wall, it is very apparent.
When you’re at that point, WordPress is probably not the right CMS to choose.
Should WordPress improve in this area?
Whether through the core application or through an excellent plug-in (is there one already that I missed?), if WordPress is going to grow in the content management systems field, this shortfall will need to be addressed.
However, WordPress is really excellent at what it does already, and the better course might be to decide to keep the features in check and let other systems compete in the mid-to-enterprise scale CMS arena. Scope creep never stops, and a good application strategy knows when to say “no.”
Am I wrong?
Am I off-base here? This is just one aspect of WordPress that should limit its use. Another that should cause designers to think twice is when dealing with faceted-navigation which requires more than one dimension (tags can probably handle one dimension). But, again, those are more complex design requirements.
I’m not a WordPress consultant, and I’ll bet some of you would like to point to the errors in my thinking. Let’s hear it.